I like to read and I like public transit. So I spend a lot of time reading on buses, trains and subways. In general reading in public doesn’t cause problems, although when I was on a subway in New York, a group of teenage boys started pointing at me and smirking while I was making my way through Herman Melville’s most famous novel. “Look at that: Moby Dick,” one of them said. “Dick! Ha!” He was immediately corrected by a more erudite friend: “Don’t be stupid — it’s about a whale.”
In my experience though, there are certain books you’d be well advised to avoid associating yourself with company with, at least in broad daylight and in front of a mob. Generally these are books with provocative titles and covers. Despite the popular adage, most people are willing to judge a book by its cover. A few examples of books that have caused trouble for me (and on occasion my friends).
1. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is of course a modern classic with a very striking cover, appropriately reminiscent of a World War II poster. But I had a student once who said a man on the subway gave her the evil eye for reading it, possibly motivated by the swastika on the cover. (Or could it be that the man was an anti-Semite?) Spiegelman has a real gift for eye-catching images, as evidenced by the many controversial covers he’s done for the New Yorker, including this one.
2. Joseph Epstein’s Fabulous Small Jews, a very witty title especially if you know Karl Shapiro’s poem “Hospital” which Epstein is echoing: “This is the Oxford of all sicknesses. / Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews / And actresses whose legs were always news.” Still, strangers are very puzzled and put off by the title.
3. Peter Ward’s White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy toward Orientals in British Columbia, a standard and well-regarded academic history. My friend Dimitry once said that reading this on the subway made him feel like a skinhead. (The book’s cover can be seen here.)
4. Guy Davenport’s Eclogues: a masterpiece, a veritable storehouse of Davenport’s finest and cleanest prose. I was quite mystified by the odd looks it provoked, but that’s because I’m dense. The cover drawing, by Picasso, does have a homoerotic overtone. My love of Davenport, which is boundless, blinded me to how offensive some would find the cover.